Getting Straight to the Heart of Anxiety and Turning It Off

Some say the brain is the final frontier of medical inquiry. With that said, much has been discovered in recent years that is leading to a greater understanding of why many of us, at some point in our lives, can experience the debilitating effects of anxiety.

Merriam-Webster defines anxiety as “an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physical signs (such as tension, sweating, and increased pulse rate), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it.”

If you have ever fallen prey to major league anxiety, you know that the word “overwhelming” is not an exaggeration. Anxiety somehow inhabits. It invades from nowhere and saps your strength and will before its approach can be discerned. Small wonder that there is “self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it.” But does it have to render us helpless? Perhaps not.

It is now understood that the crippling physical and mental disturbances associated with anxiety most often emanate from the more primitive brain structures located beneath the cerebral cortex. These structures gather up and store the distinct patterns of sensory input that are experienced during traumatic encounters. Light, shadow, dimension, colors, textures, aromas, tone, vibration, time, movement, balance, place, and pain are all encoded on templates primed to initiate a rapid, visceral need to fight or flee should we find ourselves in circumstances that somehow resemble a brush with danger in the past. It is evolution at work – the quicker the response, the greater the chance for survival.

This works well for a wild stallion feeling dread upon entering a box canyon similar to the one from which it narrowly escaped being cornered by a pack of hungry wolves four years ago. Best to exit both fast and furiously. But maybe not so much for the young account manager who inexplicably experiences intractable distress upon entering a generously proportioned dining room. Unfortunately for her the rectangular space with a large table and numerous chairs bares enough of a resemblance to the boardroom where she was mercilessly humiliated by a bellicose superior that it triggers the template carefully preserved to viscerally warn her of danger in such places. Her heart begins to race, and she feels flushed as the room closes in. She is sure that everyone in the room can see her predicament, but social norms dictate that she stay. If you’ve ever been there, you know about the alarming loss of control followed by the dread of it ever happening again.

Anxiety has traditionally been treated with a combination of talk therapy and medication. In talk therapy one can take stock of what’s going on, and perhaps begin to see the circumstances in a more manageable context. Medications are often used to dull extreme emotional response to the perception of a lack of control or satisfaction. Much needed relief can be had here, but it is often incomplete and accompanied by the unpleasant side effects associated with the medication.

But given the recent discovery of primitive brain encoding, a third way is emerging. A number of what are called psycho-sensory techniques are now being used to target the source of the problem – those sensory templates that can trigger a severe anxiety response when any one of us is exposed to a pattern of sense perception that bares a resemblance to past traumatic encounters. “Havening,” perhaps the most robust of this group of therapies, employs a choreographed sequence of recall and self-soothing that enlists the electro-chemical nature of the brain to initiate a cascading process that can ultimately erase the templates. Individuals who have been guided through a Havening session more often than not discover that they no longer harbor the burdensome anxiety related to past trauma. As the weight is lifted from their shoulders, they stand up straighter. As the tension drains from their faces, they look younger. It is a remarkable transformation to witness.

And the post Havening world offers a much more welcoming landscape. The boardrooms, public speaking opportunities, difficult people, planes to catch, and bridges to drive over – they no longer possess the emotional valence that necessitated avoidance in the past.

As therapists explore this approach to the relief of emotional distress, more and more uses are coming to light. Depression, grief, anger, loss, shame and fear of abandonment can all be addressed by various applications of the Havening Techniques. It is a genuine paradigm shift in the way psychological challenges are understood, and approached therapeutically. For more information about Havening, see Tam Johnston’s YouTube presentation, “What Is Havening and How Does It Work.” There is also the book, Fifteen Minutes to Freedom by Harry Pickens. This is a compilation of Havening stories as told by the pioneers in this enormously promising movement, many of whom are my friends and mentors.

Peter Demetri is a licensed psychotherapist with a private practice in Pawling and New York City. He can be reached at (845) 702-2162; or To learn more online, visit